Lights, Christmas, action!

Twinkle lights in the Tuscan capital

Mary Gray
November 29, 2018 - 13:26

“Gradually and then suddenly” was how Hemingway said one goes bankrupt. It’s also how something far more fun tends to take shape: city Christmas light displays.


The first lights I noticed this year in Florence (on the edge of borgo Ognissanti, for the record), were likely not the first to be hung. You may suspect as much about the earliest ones you spotted. But which streets turn twinkliest the fastest isn’t really the point: watching one’s everyday route slowly turn up the festive factor, string by string, until all at once the center morphs into LED-laden Candyland, is the real pleasure.


Like the scene-stealing janitor in the original Miracle on 34th Street, I tend to balk at the tinsel, trees and Black Friday promos hanging in shop windows before the leaves even turn—“Make a buck, make a buck!”, as the Brooklynite riffed—but once the days shorten, strings of Florentine fairy lights get a free pass. More is more is more: I like to see the city take the Clark Griswold approach.


Illustrations by Nicola Giorgio


There’s something very secretive and Santa’s workshop-y about the whole enterprise, however. You’re walking down via Tornabuoni one day with your penny-pinching blinders on; then, seemingly overnight, the street’s Winter Wonderland aesthetic takes hold and, emboldened, you pop into a maison for a browse. (They know what they’re doing, these light hangers).


But who are they, actually? I’d humbly suggest that the inner workings of via Tornabuoni, the town Christmas tree and their ilk are best left unexplored, in the interest of not spoiling our collective fantasy of Florentine elves in holiday garb hanging all the doodads.

One street in particular, however, seemed worth probing, as it consistently aims to set itself apart from the others come Christmastime. Its shop owners form a band of real-life Santa’s helpers—never mind that the polling and planning about the year’s lights display takes place in a private Facebook group rather than at the North Pole. Picture the lengthy shopping stretches of Florence as Santa’s reindeer, and via Romana is your Rudolph.

The street’s merchant association, better known as the Boboli Centro Commerciale Naturale, has long planned light displays that eschew candy canes and holly sprigs for statements and solidarity pledges. Marzio Cinelli, president for the past three years and owner of antiques haven Expertise, is the Babbo Natale behind much of the magic, though he doesn’t like to take too much credit: “We’re a community at the end of the day,” he says from an antique armchair not unlike the one you’d picture Santa sitting in. “It doesn’t really make sense to say, oh, the {past installations of} bikes were Martina’s idea, Paolo came up with the umbrellas, and so forth. We try to put everything together in the most collegial way possible.”



This year, that meant focusing on the force of words for good in the world, at a time when their true weight is cheapened by the anything-goes sphere of social media. From the tip of the road seen from piazza San Felice, via Romana makes it clear just what kind of Christmas it wishes all of us to have. Un natale di (“a Christmas of”), with a tease of an ellipsis, and twelve words that follow: speranza (hope), uguaglianza (equality), and condivisione (sharing) are among them. Marzio emphasizes that in a period of tense conflicts not just in Florence, but around the world, the association wanted to highlight the positive power of words, and call for reflection on how “each word creates an interior vibration in every person who hears it, who reads it, who says it,” Cinelli explains.


The result is certainly warm and fuzzy. But the process isn’t all fun, games and feel-good, Instagrammable messages.


Behind the scenes, the task of planning and funding the neighborhood Christmas lights can be rather thankless work. Marzio says wryly, “If you make this guy over here happy, inevitably you’re going to disappoint this lady,” gesturing this way and that, not to specific neighbors, but to the general population of Christmas light critics. “And vice versa for the next year,” he continues.


“You go traditional, someone wishes you took more risks; you try something new and people wish you just did something simple.”

Such a no-win at peak Natale season means few people are eager to do the work of decking the halls. Marzio is convinced that via Romana is unique in Florence in that the group works collaboratively, though he admits that starting a few months earlier would ease the mechanics substantially. “Ideally we’d start before the summer,” he says with a grin, “but at that time of year no one really wants to think about the Christmas lights.” Particularly since via Romana takes a “glowhard” approach, so to speak: the road’s lights are never based on reconstructed designs, but are always ad-hoc projects by commissioned artists, who work from the Boboli CCN’s ideas. (Ideas that, realistically, start evolving into something concrete around September—nine months after the previous Christmas, giving Marzio and his fellow shopkeepers enough time to do the number-crunching from the previous year).


Like via Romana’s rotating installations, the annual F-Light Festival, under the artistic direction of Sergio Risaliti, is another integral part of the local season’s pulse. Although not specifically Yuletide-tinged, it’s become a sort of holiday standby. Unlike their static string counterparts, F-Light’s gems are dynamic projections and installations illuminating the facades or interiors of key Florentine monuments. Inaugurated at the height of the holiday rush—officially, at the lighting of the tree in piazza Duomo on December 8—F-Light carries on through the cold and drizzly weeks of Christmas and Epiphany, when we all tend to forget what day it is. Exit your house during that hibernation period and you’ll see that F-Light reliably lends some ceremony to our collective idling.

Stefano Fomasi (known as Stefano Fake) of The Fake Factory is one of the light designers involved in the ritual festivities. Like Marzio’s hall-decking delegation, Stefano and his team start well in advance of the tree-trimming season. About four months ahead, he says, or as soon as they’re given a working theme from Risaliti and the Comune’s creative forces. Fake Factory’s team is specifically responsible for the rather intimidating task of illuminating the Ponte Vecchio, the Sala d’Arme in Palazzo Vecchio, and the Basilica of Santo Spirito—three of the 15 monuments in the MUS.E Firenze-led initiative.


The initial research and planning, for Stefano, typically takes “about two months,” he says.


But the grunt work happens much like it must in Santa’s workshop: a series of marathon overnight sessions and test runs in the sprint to the finish—not Christmas Eve, but the festival kickoff. “We typically work from 10pm to 5am in the week ahead of the inauguration,” he says. Monument trials are typically scheduled at the quietest hours possible to avoid prematurely leaking too many surprises.


But it’s the holiday season, and a spoiler or two is in order—particularly for those of us who like to shake the gifts we spot under the tree or stuffed in closets. Just as via Romana’s lights offer a lens through which to view the new year, much of F-Light will focus on hints of the 2019 to come—and history worth celebrating. Florence and the wider world are preparing to spotlight the legacy of Leonardo Da Vinci, 500 years after his birth, and F-Light will ramp up the early tributes to the Renaissance man with a Leonardo and water-themed installation on the Ponte Vecchio. Themes of destruction and renewal, submergence and resurfacing will be front and center. Not far off—neither physically nor philosophically—from the moving messages dangling from on high in via Romana.

Consider this TF’s tribute to Stefano and Marzio, and all the many “elves”, seen and unseen, who help make Florence feel like a gingerbread house—and, more importantly, like a warm and welcoming home at the holidays.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good light.

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